Massachusetts voters are considering an assisted suicide law. I do not deny the right of the states to create this type of legislation; better there than through federal law or mandate. I can be an American citizen and remain one while moving from a state whose laws I do not condone to a more legally congenial one. Call it freedom of choice. We like that phrase and use it often. That’s what proponents of assisted suicide legislation say, that we are giving people the freedom to make the choice. I’ll let those so inclined debate theological doctrine and the moral issue. I see nothing in scripture prohibiting suicide. Assisted suicide still looks like murder to me.
Ben Mattlin writes about this matter in the NYT, an op-ed, “Suicide by Choice? Not So Fast”. Disabled by spinal muscular atrophy from birth, it is a rare person so afflicted who lives so long. He wants to live longer. He’s nearly fifty years old, has a family and lives as a writer, although technically, he can no longer write. He sounds fairly helpless. “And a few years ago, when a surgical blunder put me into a coma from septic shock, the doctors seriously questioned whether it was worth trying to extend my life. My existence seemed pretty tenuous anyway, they figured. They didn’t know about my family, my career, my aspirations.” If his wife had not objected, he would not have been treated. He was in no position to protest. Doctors, looking at him objectively, are inclined to think his life is not worth living. He suffers and yet cherishes life. Maybe no one loves life like a person who has always lived close to death. Mattlin says, “I am more than my diagnosis and my prognosis.”
Aren’t we all? Yet he has this different perspective than most of us and writes about the coercion of the troublesomely ill by those who are well.
This is but one of many invisible forces of coercion. Others include that certain look of exhaustion in a loved one’s eyes, or the way nurses and friends sigh in your presence while you’re zoned out in a hospital bed. All these can cast a dangerous cloud of depression upon even the most cheery of optimists, a situation clinicians might misread since, to them, it seems perfectly rational.
And in a sense, it is rational, given the dearth of alternatives. If nobody wants you at the party, why should you stay? Advocates of Death With Dignity laws who say that patients themselves should decide whether to live or die are fantasizing. Who chooses suicide in a vacuum? We are inexorably affected by our immediate environment. The deck is stacked.
He also notes that there is little evidence of abuse in states that have assisted suicide laws. Perhaps the laws in those states say, as the Massachusetts law says, “there is no requirement for oversight of the ingestion (of poison) at all; no one has to witness how and when the lethal drug is given.” If this is common in such cases, then who would know if there was ever abuse of the law since the chief witness will be dead by the time anyone is around to ask questions?
We have a family member with severely compromised health. She, too, is alive despite all medical prognoses and predictions. She, too, has been near death and doctors and nurses had to fight to have her kept alive. It’s expensive. Something like 80% of the medical expenses anyone will incur in a lifetime accrue during the last months or weeks or days of life through attempts to keep that person alive. If you repeat the process by staying alive, so you can die or almost die again, then you are a real drain on the resources of the health care system. One major reason that health care costs are so high is because medicine can do much to keep the marginally surviving person from dying. It is cheaper to let such people die. And yet….